Ugly Americans get involved in travel planning

“The debate over snowmobile access in the Tahoe National Forest has taken an ugly turn with a spate of emails, social media posts and online comments filled with foul and abusive language.

Several people pushing for more restrictions on snowmobiles in the 800,000-acre forest that straddles the Sierra Crest have been the targets of online abuse.

The problem has gotten bad enough that Forest Service officials disabled a portion of the online comment system when they suspected people used it to target other commenters with nasty emails.”

This is a symptom of a much bigger problem in this country right now, but the problem it causes federal agencies is that they will have to start questioning the results of the public comment process where there is any indication that people have been intimidated from participating.

19 thoughts on “Ugly Americans get involved in travel planning”

  1. Thanks for sharing yet another good example of ‘rural values’ on clear display in rural America, Jon.

    Ten years ago in Montana an angry mob of motorized-vehicle users (and I’m going to assume abusers) threatened U.S. Forest Service officials during a travel planning meeting on the Bitterroot National Forest and one of the motorized-vehicle (ab)users even said “put a bullet in her head” to a woman who had just spoken during the public comment period in favor of limiting motorized abuse on public lands.

    More at:

  2. Hmm. Seems to me that there are, and will always be, some people that exceed the bounds of civility and even threaten violence, in every group. Is incivility part of “rural values”? Methinks not. My guess is that it’s simply the same thing that goes on on most sites and is almost part of the air we breathe. It’s almost like people on the internet use a different language that is full of all the things that we think are bad. Calling people names, assuming the worst about them, not being humble, and so on. All the behaviors that people have been trying to reduce or eliminate over the centuries are flourishing in their new habitat.

    In terms of written comments, though, there is a tension between them being open and public with your own name (possible risk?) and figuring out what is a fake comment.

  3. And, yet, Sierra Clubbers yell at the Forest Service for (apparently) wanting to clearcut Giant Sequoias. Of course, the Sierra Club allows, and seems to even welcome this practice, in favor of donations. Some have even threatened gun violence, to defend the trees.

    • Hi Larry, I would love to see some concrete examples of Sierra Clubbers “yelling at the Forest Service” or “threatening gun violence.” Thanks in advance buddy!

      • Go look at the Sierra Club’s Facebook page. Yep, they left it all up there, including my own truthful comments about how redwood trees are not giant sequoias and lumber mills refuse to buy such ‘bigtrees’.

  4. Source:

    Larry Campbell, 57, a former geologist, logger and carpenter, believes that using armed guards to escort public citizens out of a public office is similar to the type of “manufactured consent” seen at most of President Bush’s political rallies.

    “It’s outrageous to be barred from a public meeting in a public place concerning a public decision-making process about public land. This incident is symptomatic of President Bush’s and Supervisor Bull’s approach to public process.”

    Ironically, back in 2001, Campbell who was on the receiving end of an assault in the parking lot of this very same Forest Service office. Campbell was assaulted, spit on and threatened by a band of a dozen violent loggers right in the parking lot of the Bitterroot Supervisor’s office in Hamilton as he emerged from inside the office after picking up some public documents.

    “Bitterroot National Forest officials did absolutely nothing about the assault and made no attempts to come to my rescue. Instead Forest Service officials simply sat inside the office and peered out the window as the assault took place,” related Campbell.

  5. Jon, thanks for posting. I think this is a big problem. But I would like to disagree with your comment if I may.
    Threats of violence is not new, sadly. So I strongly disagree with the notion that this latest incident is a symptom of a “bigger problem right now.”
    Since 1988 I have witnessed similar threats (and worse) by virtually every major recreational stakeholder. (Matthew, please see below).
    Also, I think I disagree with your conclusion that such threats should result in “questioning the results of the public comment process. ” Please consider that this specific planning public process has been ongoing for many years. So I would object to any “questioning the results” of the public input submitted thus far. And I would respectfully caution any planner not to ignore the concerns of a major stakeholder group because a small percentage of that group are jerks. Or even worse than jerks.
    But more importantly… I think recreational stakeholders (of all kinds) are most likely to lash out inappropriately when they feel their voice and concerns have not been “heard” by the agency. We used to call this “meaningful public input.” (Sharon, isn’t that a technical NEPA term? With definition and stuff???) In other words… “I may not get everything I want but I know the agency understood my comment/concern and at least in some way addressed it in the decision.” I can’t say for certain, but I believe this may be the case on the Tahoe.
    Naturally, I am most disappointed when any threat of violence comes from OHV and Snowmobile people. I know BRC and my other Snowmobile groups strongly condemned the snowmobile’rs involved here.
    Thanks again for posting Jon. I think this is important. I very much appreciate your contributions to NCFP.
    PS: Matthew, I thought it a reasonable assumption that you would request documentation for the assertion that threats of violence come from every recreational group. So I quickly did a “google” and found two items that should suffice. I can supply additional if necessary. I also have personal experience (nearly crashed avoiding a nail board while riding my dirt bike in Utah’s San Rafael Swell).
    County worker charged with trail sabotage
    Forest protester facing three federal misdemeanor charges

      • Thanks Sharon. I think I may have the terms incorrect. It might be “participation” instead of “involvement.” Sorry….

        • “Meaningful public involvement” is actually a thing, Brian. You sometimes see it stated in court cases, and it’s in the EPA NEPA regulations (40 CFR 6.203) as:
          (5) The Responsible Official must use appropriate communication procedures to ensure meaningful public participation throughout the NEPA process. The Responsible Official must make reasonable efforts to involve the potentially affected communities where the proposed action is expected to have environmental impacts …”
          So the focus is on what the Responsible Officials does to get the input. For example, in one of the roadless area cases, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, this came up where the issue was the amount of time the
          public had to comment.

          On the question of the “bigger problem right now.”

          • Jon, does EPA define “meaningful” explicitly anywhere that you know of? My sense is that the term or concept is almost entirely left to courts to define and that most precedent goes to matters like the length of the comment period, much as with the roadless case you mention. I’ve always thought those criteria were more like a surrogate for whether the public involvement was meaningful in a substantial way to either the participants or the planning process.

            Also, curious if you have seen the EPA regs applied in a land management situation. Usually EPA wouldn’t have lead so their regs wouldn’t apply, right?

            This all reminds me of when a particular group was being especially critical of a collaborative process. I finally asked what they meant by a good collaborative effort. The answer was something along the lines of “everyone’s happy in the end”. I reminded them that their happiness probably was their responsibility and left it at that.

            Perhaps meaningful, like happiness, is one of those “you know it when you see it” things. Or we could tie it to ideas like “substantive” or the length of a comment period. It’s a crucial idea, but I’m not sure how to ground it in a way that is really workable. Thoughts?

    • Thanks Brian.

      FWIW: Seems to me that the “forest protester” should actually (and more accurately) be described as an 81 year old equestrian rider, but whatever really.

      I also think there’s a difference between an 81 year old horse guy, or a psychiatrist, acting on their own, on their own time to do something illegal…and people showing up at a U.S. Forest Service meeting and shouting “put a bullet in her head”….or in the parking lot of the Bitterroot National Forest (while the USFS officials stand inside and watch) a group of angry loggers spitting, assaulting and rocking the car of a citizen who simply is walking out of the USFS office after obtaining public records for a public process.

      Also, I should just generally mention that I brought up “rural values” for the simple reason that some people who live in rural areas like to claim “rural values” and fancy themselves as having basic “values” that apparently people who live in towns or cities don’t have. For example, you never hear of “urban values.”

      I bring this up as someone who grow up in a rural village of under 1,000 people, a place where my family has lived for 6 generations now.

      • The only thing I see so far in common with these bad behaviors is that they were all done by men. So if we want to stereotype….

      • Yes Matthew, there is a huge difference. One emails homophobic threats, uses foul language and “references to violence.” The other takes actions intended to injure or kill trail users. I agree with you Matthew, there is a huge difference.

        Also… I am very familiar with the “81 year old horse guy.” I regularly ride the trails on the Coconino near Flagstaff. I’ve encountered him on the trails several times. I have seen photos of the wire he stretched across the trails. At about neck height. He was not charged, but should have been. Attempted murder. In my opinion.

  6. Sharon, thanks for bringing this discussion to my attention and to Jon for this specific thread. This is a really interesting question because “meaningful” depends on perspective, like whether the participation is meaningful to the planning team or the participant, to the local community residents or the national community of interest. I’m going to assume this group generally thinks of “meaningful” as having two aspects: (1) participation that has a substantive effect on the resulting plan and (2) participation that felt fair and equitable to the participants.

    Getting to Brian Hawthorne’s question about whether NEPA refers to “meaningful public input”, the CEQ NEPA regulations actually use the phrase “public involvement” without getting into “meaningful”. The actual NEPA law is much more obtuse about public involvement, referring only to public review directly.

    In the CEQ regulations, though, I’ve found it useful to recognize the link between public involvement and ‘substantive’ commenting because the idea of “substantive” here seems useful. If someone participates on the public involvement activities and contributes “substantive comments”, maybe that gets to that aspect of “meaningful” that is about having a substantive effect on the resulting plan.

    But much of this discussion is as much about threats of violence and intimidation during a public involvement, engagement, or participation process, whatever we might call it. Having been in situations where violence was threatened or implicit in the moment, like when self-titled militia groups were feeling emboldened by attacks on federal buildings or infuriated by news events, let me offer a thought or two here. There are some invaluable process-design considerations worth discussion.

    One of the truisms from the work on negotiation and collaboration is that it can be important to separate “the people” from “the problem”. I’ve seen the difference that can happen in very heated conflicts if a skilled person helps the participants through a sophisticated-yet-understandable process. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. Moreover, the result is rarely credited to the process design skills because those who are good at it know such credit would actually undermine the process, a Catch-22 if there ever was one.

    I guess what I’ll leave you with is, first, this: the tense, edging-towards-violence situations today aren’t new even if scary. That being said, what’s missing most, I would argue, is a willingness to invest in the skills essential to changing the dialogue. Arguments about whether the political context of today is poisoned and by whom seem less important than investing in finding a way through the mess. Doing that will get you meaningful public participation regardless of your politics or persuasion.

    Lastly, I leave you with this: threats of violence are illegal and should be treated as such, but skills in de-escalation are especially valuable in policing situations like this. I have some experience working with law enforcement to find ways to de-escalate situations in real-time and to communicate with those responsible for escalation so that de-escalation is possible. Again, those skills are worthy of more attention and more training. Perhaps that’s a worth thread here.

    Anyway, thanks again to everyone weighing-in on this. It seems important.

  7. Thanks, Peter for your thoughtful comments. If you would be willing to write more on the de-escalation skills that would be much appreciated.

    As for “substantive comments” is that defined anywhere for any reason, including legally? Having like you, read thousands of comments in my day, I have my own ideas.

    • Yes, substantive comments are defined in the CEQ NEPA regulations (40 CFR 1500-1508). The section on “commenting” (1503) includes this direction: “all SUBSTANTIVE COMMENTS received on the draft statement… should be attached to the final statement…” when directing federal agencies regarding their response to comments (1503.4(b)). This means agencies have to distinguish between substantive and what we might call “other-than-substantive” comments. The challenge, clearly, is to figure out justifications for making that separation.

      Although the CEQ regulations give agencies wide latitude to determine whether a comment is substantive, the section on commenting includes some basis for doing so. For example, there’s direction about “specificity of comments” (1503.3), so being specific is one filter. There’s other direction saying “comments… shall be as specific as possible” and “may address either the adequacy of the statement or the merits of the alternatives or both.” Regarding adequacy, the section refers to “predictive methodologies,” so any comment that questions those would be “substantive,” especially if it mentions another methodology as preferable.

      Regarding the merits of a statement, a comment is substantive if it refers to the need for additional information before fully commenting on any analysis of effects. Also, a comment would be substantive if it expresses concerns about environmental impacts and includes recommendations of specific mitigation measures that might address those concerns. All these criteria seem to fit the idea of “including but not limited to”, meaning this list isn’t meant to exclude other possible criteria for “substantive”.

      Here’s the thing though: The CEQ NEPA regulations tell federal agencies what to do, but only encourage non-federal entities, including regular people, to do things like offering substantive comments. Anyone can say anything they want. Nevertheless, while not required, offering a substantive comment seems smart for several reasons. One is that the lead federal agency can’t dismiss a comment that meets any of the basic criteria for being substantive. That means anyone who offers such a comment will make a difference. Secondly, though, focusing on these or similar ideas about substantive comments is entirely consistent with the goal of “separating the people from the problem”, an idea I mentioned in my first addition to this thread. This suggests there is value in helping everyone understand this idea of “substantive.”

      My sense is that helping people understand at least some of the criteria for a substantive comment would encourage more of those comments and less that are emotional, adversarial, or inflammatory and, thus, other-than-substantive. This idea fits with the “de-escalation” question you asked as well. I’ll get to that one shortly.

      I hope this all helps the conversation here. Again, thanks to everyone who is working on this, even if only reading and thinking about it.

    • Ah.. recreationists behaving badly.. we could have an entire blog related to that. Diapers left at dispersed camping sites, mountain bikers knocking people over as they go downhill, dog owners leaving their poop on the trail. Not sure how this relates to threatening others except that it’s bad behavior.


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